Ten years ago, St. Joseph’s Altar came to Saint Mary Catholic Church in Orange as an answer to prayers. “I prayed and prayed to Jesus. I wanted to do something to help the poor, but, we don’t have that kind of money,” said Rosalie Clark. The answer to that prayer came in the form of St. Joseph’s Altar. “We always had them at home growing up,” said Clark.

Traditional altars are an offering of love, labor and sacrifice. The poor and indigent are invited to come and share a meal that is steeped in tradition and symbolism. The first altar was offered many centuries ago by the Sicilians in gratitude to answered prayers. There was a long period of draught and famine. Out of desperation, the people turned to St. Joseph asking his help and intercession. Their prayers were answered when the rains came and the crops prospered. Giving thanks, they presented their very best of the harvest. Tables were ladened with breads made from the finest grains, fruits, vegetables, seafood and wine. All the poor were invited to join in their prayer and festivity.

Though the celebrations started with the Sicilians, they are now offered by many churches throughout the world. Normally held on the feast day of St. Joseph, March 19, St. Mary Church is holding theirs on March 14. The actual feast day falls during Holy Week this year and no celebrations are allowed that week.

Ten years ago, Monsignor Enderle suggested Clark offer the traditional feast at the church. Rev. Joseph P. Daleo continued the tradition.

All the poor are invited to attend along with the public. Though there is no charge for the meal, there are baskets set up at both entrances where donations can be made. The event brings approximately $7,500 each year which is then divided and distributed to the various soup kitchens and agencies that assist the poor. “We have lots of very generous people,” said Clark.

There is tradition and symbolism throughout the altar. There are three levels to the altars that represent the Holy Trinity. Breads named Cuchidati, are sculpted into elaborate shapes. Representing the Sacred Heart of Jesus are hearts. The cross represents the Crucifixion; the Chalice for water and wine; a Monstrance containing the Host; St. Joseph’s staff; palms representing those strewn in Jesus’ path in Jerusalem; Pupacoulova (baskets containing dyed eggs foretelling the coming of Easter); plus various shapes such as fish, birds and flowers. There are many types of cookies, such as fig cakes, biscotti, the pignolati or GiGi’s are pastry kernels molded with caramelized sugar into pyramids which represent the pine cones Jesus played with as a child.

The one thing you won’t find on the altar is meat. It is not known for sure if the absence of meat is because the Feast Day occurs during the Lenten season or because there was always a scarcity of meat.

A Baked Redfish and twelve fried whole trout represent the twelve apostles or Christ’s feeding the multitudes. There is seafood of every kind imaginable.

The main dish is Pasta Milanese. They start making the “Suga” which is the pasta sauce at St. Mary several days in advance because of the volume. Thirty gallons is what it takes to feed the hungry in Orange. They also serve a dressing made with fish.
The alter is also decorated with statues of the holy family and flowers. Italy’s colors of red, green and white are hung on the wall behind the altar.

 Normally they have children to play the part of the Holy Family and Saints. This year they are giving adults that have serious health issues the honor. Jesus will be Dr. Tommy Cary, Mary will be played by Ellen Kuester, St. Joseph will be portrayed by Kenneth Lauzon. St. Therese will also be at this years feast portrayed by Dorothy Dupree. Kuester’s mother will also be with her to sign at the table because her illness has deprived her of her hearing. The Holy Family is served a small portion of every item on the altar. Prayer and hymns accompany the ritual. The guests are served after the Family has finished their meal.

The charities that will benefit from this year’s altar are Mount Sinai Baptist Church Soup Kitchen, Mount Olive Baptist Church Soup Kitchen, First Presbyterian Church Soup Kitchen, Birthright of Orange, Orange Community Partners “The Rainbow Room”, Friends helping Friends, Orange Christian Services, St. Mary’s Samaritan Account, The Josephities Fathers & Brothers and Our Lady of Victory Homes.

The public is invited to attend.  St. Joseph Chaplet is scheduled for 10:30 a.m., Blessing of the Altar at 11:00, Altar opened to Parish Community and Friends at 11:30 a.m.

St. Mary Catholic Church Hall is located at 912 W. Cherry in Orange

Last year they served over 600 people.

About Penny LeLeux

Penny has worked at The Record Newspapers since 2006. A member of the editorial staff, she has "done everything but print it." Most frequently she writes entertainment reviews and human interest stories, with a little paranormal thrown in from time to time.She has been a lifelong member of the Orangefield community.